Years ago there was a commercial for Pepto-Bismol, where a nerdy guy in glasses looked straight into the camera and said something like, “Can we talk about diarrhea?” It was an effective ad because, well, they took the bull by the horns, as it were. They didn’t sugar coat the malady; they didn’t try to cleverly talk around it.
People get diarrhea. They don’t like to talk about it, but sometimes they have to in order to stop it.
That’s the feeling I have right now in talking to writers about a malady that may affect every one of them from time to time: envy. Can we talk?
This seems a good follow up to John’s Friday post. Writers are sometimes subject to slings and arrows from those who envy them. But what happens when envy sneaks up on the writer?
Ann Lamott has a great chapter on envy in her writing book, Bird by Bird. Here, in part, is what she says:
If you continue to write, you are probably going to have to deal with it because some wonderful, dazzling successes are going to happen for some of the most awful, angry, undeserving writers you know—people who are, in other words, not you. You are going to feel awful beyond words. you are going to have a number of days in a row where you hate everyone and don’t believe in anything . . . If you do know the author whose turn it is, he or she will inevitably say that it will be your turn next, which is what the bride always says to you at each successive wedding, while you grow older and more decayed . . . It can wreak just the tiniest bit of havoc with your self-esteem to find that you are hoping for small bad things to happen to this friend—for, say, her head to blow up.
Funny, yes; but the truth is that envy is a serious waste of time and a drain on your energy. Like any emotion, it can be a chronic condition or a momentary blip. If it is the former, you really have to do something to eradicate it. Let me suggest a few things:
1. Acknowledge your humanity and the fact that you care about what you’re doing. That’s the basic reason you feel the way you do. You’re invested in your writing emotionally, as you should be. You’re also not perfect, and don’t expect you ever will be.
2. Look at the part of your feelings that wants the other person to fail, or not enjoy success. That’s the ugly bit you’ve got to get rid of. If you have an active spiritual life, this is a good place to bring out the big guns. The Book of Proverbs, chapter 14, verse 30 says, “A heart at peace gives life to the body, but envy rots the bones.” The ancient philosopher Epicurus wrote: “Do not spoil what you have by desiring what you have not; remember that what you now have was once among the things you only hoped for.” Whatever practice you engage in, the great religions and spiritual views have always talked about the jewel of contentment. “Health is the greatest gift,” Buddha said. “Contentment the greatest wealth.” That’s worth pursuing.
3. Write. This is always the best antidote to any writerly anxiety. Get involved in your project. Put your head down and produce the words.
4. Improve. Anyone – anyone – can improve their craft. You are always at a certain level, and you can with some effort get to the next level. Your competition is really only with yourself. There is joy and confidence when you see yourself improving.
5. Prepare. Know that a pang of envy may come at any time. Before that happens, affirm your own worth and say a bit of Lawrence Block’s “A Writer’s Prayer” (from his book, Telling Lies for Fun and Profit):
For starters, help me to avoid comparing myself to other writers. I can make a lot of trouble for myself when I do that . . .Lord, help me remember that I’m not in competition with other writers. Whether they have more or less success has nothing to do with me. They have their stories to write and I have mine. They have their way of writing them and I have mine. They have their careers and I have mine. The more focus on comparing myself with them, the less energy I am able to concentrate on making the best of myself and my own work. I wind up despairing of my ability and bitter about its fruits, and all I manage to do is sabotage myself . . .When I read a writer who does things better than I do, enable me to learn from him . . .
A hearty Amen to that.